U.S. Sen. Susan Collins deserves a full measure of credit and respect for her willingness, once again, to break ranks with most of her Republican Senate colleagues and take the high road, rather than the partisan road.
Maine’s Republican senator met last week with Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and President Barack Obama’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Collins stands nearly alone among Republicans in her assertion that the Senate should “follow the regular order” and move forward with the process established by the U.S. Constitution to “advise and consent” on the president’s Supreme Court nominations. That puts her directly at odds with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders, who have taken the position that the next president should get to choose the replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly Feb. 13 at the age of 79.
In defending their stance, the Republican leaders have pointed to comments made by Vice President Joe Biden during the presidential campaign of 1992 when he was a Democratic senator. At the time, there were no Supreme Court vacancies. Nevertheless, Biden urged Republican President George H.W. Bush not to nominate a justice should a vacancy occur in the midst of Democrat Bill Clinton’s campaign challenging Bush’s bid for re-election. Biden cited the need to avoid partisan bickering and politicization of the court nomination process. He also said that the Senate Judiciary Committee – which he chaired at the time – should not hold confirmation hearings if a nomination was made.
But Biden was wrong then, just as Republicans are wrong now.
Sadly, we’ve seen fit, in this nation, to extend the presidential nomination campaign process to the point that it now extends for well over a year before the sitting president’s term ends. That should not – and under the Constitution, does not – foreclose the president’s right – indeed, his duty – to nominate a new Supreme Court justice, should a vacancy occur, during the final year of his term.
Collins has ably made that point in various interviews. She recently told Robert Siegel of National Public Radio, “The Constitution’s very clear that the president has every right to make this nomination, and then the Senate can either consent or withhold its consent.” The only way that can happen, added Collins, “is by thoroughly vetting the nominee.” That, she said, means having personal meetings with the nominee and holding a public hearing.
Collins acknowledges that her view differs sharply from that of most Senate Republicans. “I recognize and respect the alternative view that is held by the majority leader and by the chairman of the Judiciary Committee,” she told NPR. “I simply disagree with that.”
Very much at play in this current discussion is the desire of Republicans to restore the 5-4 conservative balance of the court that was upset by the untimely death of Scalia, who was, by most accounts, the court’s staunchest conservative. Collins observes that Garland, who has a strong record after 19 years on the Appeals Court and is widely regarded as something of a centrist, could be a far more appealing nominee to Republicans than anyone who might be chosen by the next president. “If the next president is a Democrat, then the balance could be tipped way further than Judge Garland,” Collins has said. “If the nominee is Donald Trump, and he becomes the next president, who knows who his nominee would be. He’s rather unpredictable.”
Collins is again the rare voice of reason in an arena where partisanship rules. Republican Senate leaders would be wise to heed her advice, move forward with the normal Supreme Court nomination process and let the Senate consent or withhold its consent based on the nominee’s fitness for service on the nation’s highest court.